Refusing Limits in Measurement Visualization
2021-05-12 | 12 min read
If you ask him, Jonathan Helfman will say he doesn’t think of himself as an inventor. He’s an interaction designer and visualization expert who transforms increasing complexity into a simpler measurement experience. While some of his ideas become patents, many become features of Keysight products.
Jon’s journey as an inventor is one of many stories we’ll be sharing during National Inventors Month in our Refusing Limits series. We’ll dive deeper into the unique approach each Keysight inventor brings to solving problems and explore how they are refusing to accept the limits of the status quo to help Keysight and its customers push the boundaries of technology.
Although Jon didn’t set out to be an inventor, it’s hard to imagine him any other way after speaking with him. He’s made a career out of challenging assumptions about how humans perceive data and interact with test and measurement interfaces. He’s also helping Keysight customers innovate faster with more confidence by reducing ambiguity in data through better visualization.
Like many inventors at Keysight, Jon often describes his inventions as a byproduct of solving customer problems. Yet, his background in user experience, art, and film animation allows him to see those problems through a unique lens. When I sat down with Jon, I was eager to learn more about his invention process.
You mentioned that your inventions start with customer problems. What kind of problems can data visualization help customers solve when they’re developing new technologies?
Visualizations use mathematics to transform data into color and geometry - helping make the information more actionable. Customers want to look at a chart and identify patterns quickly. If they see an interesting pattern, they want to know if the pattern is important. If it’s important, they need enough information to take action. Or, if customers encounter a string of errors in a certain part of a process, they want to be able to either shut down the test or drill into the data and find the root cause of the errors.
Tasks become more complicated as data volumes increase and people have less time to interpret data. People need solutions that transform and display data in the clearest possible way, so it’s easy to understand and act on. People also need a user interface that makes it easy to dive deeper into data to understand patterns and determine the next steps. The best interfaces stay out of your way and let you focus on your tasks. But to design that kind of experience, you really need to understand what the user is trying to accomplish with their data.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what customers are trying to accomplish and what they need to understand about their data to be successful. Then, I prototype ways to display and interact with the data visualizations so users can get the information they need to move forward faster.
Do you think customers have higher expectations about user interfaces than they did a decade ago?
Ten years ago, people were looking for the most features in desktop software. Product launches emphasized how new features would create more value for customers. But smartphones in particular, have changed the way people interact with software.
You have to make things simple on a mobile device. That’s why mobile applications really just do one or two things well. And in order to do something else, you’ve got to find another application. But the expectation has become that tasks should be easy to complete. When people go from their phone back to their desktop, complicated desktop interfaces feel cumbersome.
People prefer applications where there's been more attention to their tasks and their needs and things are simpler. And so, I think that the trends established by smartphones have found their way back onto the desktop. Excellent user experience has now become an expectation that influences purchasing decisions when people are looking to buy new desktop software.
Can you give an example of a real customer problem that resulted in an invention?
As hardware and software modules increase in complexity, customers are faced with the task of understanding how an increasing number of inputs interact with each other. The output of systems with multiple inputs can be difficult to understand, especially if the inputs are combined in non-linear ways. A hardware example is a film camera where both the aperture size and exposure time affect the final image. A software example is a spectrogram, where the FFT (Fast Fourier Transform) size, window function, window size, and percent overlap affect the final image. I was motivated by the difficulty I had making a spectrogram effectively and what seemed like a general problem that spanned hardware and software systems.
I remembered from photography class that to determine the best exposure time for a negative, photographers make 'test strips' by exposing a sheet of light-sensitive paper in increasingly larger bands. I imagined a software equivalent of 'test strips' using a grid of charts that were each computed with different combinations of input values – one series of input values could range over the columns and a second series could range over the rows.
After a few prototypes, I was able to translate that idea into a solution. I created a draggable range specifier that made it easy to set minimum and maximum values for each input parameter and could be dragged and dropped on the grid to make it easy to change which input parameters are shown on the rows and columns (a version of the range specifier made it into the BenchVue Test Flow product, which I also helped with). The final prototype helps people understand how a function's parameters interact in a novel way without requiring any programming. I filed an invention disclosure in December 2016, a patent application was filed in May 2017, and patent 10,991,136 was awarded for System For Visualizing Functions That Depend On Multiple Parameters in April 2021.
Does your creative background often inspire different ways of thinking about customer challenges?
Yes. Especially when it comes to color. In our industry, people understand that color is a measurement of a frequency of light. We are tempted to show quantities in visualizations with colors that are ordered by frequency, like a rainbow. While that might be a logical approach to using color, it doesn’t match up with how people perceive color and it often introduces brightness distortions that can make it difficult to appreciate our precise measurements.
One of the things I’ve done at Keysight is to write a color standard that accounts for the way people actually perceive color. And by changing the colors we use in our software, we’ve made it easier for customers to perceive their data more accurately.
I imagine every inventor has encountered pushback on a new idea at some point – either because of technical limitations or resistance to change. What kind of real or assumed limitations have you encountered in your career and how did you overcome them?
I learned how to challenge assumptions early in my career. I studied film animation along with electrical engineering in college. After college, I started designing an animation system that was to be implemented by a team of programmers. I was frustrated when they would tell me that what I was asking for was impossible. I took a programming class in college and knew that almost anything is possible in software. I realized that if I could prototype my own ideas, I would be in a much better position to understand what the actual limitations were.
There are often a lot of assumptions made when people are thinking about a problem. But, if you break the problem down into the tasks customers need to accomplish and what they need to understand to accomplish their tasks, you can usually push past assumptions to create better solutions.
It sounds like you have a lot of experience advocating for change. Do you have any advice for inventors about getting buy-in on new ways of doing things?
It can be a real challenge for people in a research lab to pitch ideas to people who just don't have the time to explore how it applies to them and their problems. In the case of improving color visualizations at Keysight, it worked to team up with the User Experience and Standards teams to create and champion a new color visualization standard. We continue to extend the color standard with training, visualization guidelines, and examples on our internal Visualization Guild website.
Thank you for sharing your experience and the lessons you’ve learned along the way. What’s something you’ve learned from another inventor?
I learned a lot about technical writing (and thinking) from Unix pioneer Doug McIlroy, whose 'omit needless words' dictum impressed upon me the effectiveness of simplicity for minimizing ambiguity. I also learned about minimizing ambiguity from Ken Church, a computational linguist, who has a unique understanding of words and phrases that are particularly poor at conveying meaning clearly, such as 'this' and 'all'. I have found that simplifying expressions to minimize ambiguity is crucial for specifying problems and requirements as well as designing visualizations and user interfaces.